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The Lasting Echo of Screamin' Jay Hawkins

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2000; Page C01

Back in 1956, when Screamin' Jay Hawkins had an eight-show-a-week gig at an Atlantic City bar, he dreamed up a nifty way to draw a crowd: He would sneak into ladies' rooms up and down the Boardwalk and scrawl red-lipsticked ads for his show on bathroom mirrors. It caught a few eyes. So did the stage act he later developed, which featured Hawkins rising from a flaming, zebra-striped coffin, his head wrapped in a white turban, his hands clutching a cigarette-smoking skull stick, which he'd christened Henry.

Hokey? Of course. Riveting? Every time.

Hawkins, who died on Saturday in France at age 70, will not be remembered for a lifetime of chart-topping singles or platinum albums. He never really cracked the Billboard charts, not even with his one certifiable claim to rock fame, his hilarious and haunting 1956 song "I Put a Spell on You."

But he was a master at commanding the undivided attention of an audience, and devised an onstage ghoul shtick that many better-selling acts shamelessly imitate. Hawkins's most startling gift was his voice, a hellbent howl that producers wisely drenched in reverb, giving the impression that he was singing in a swamp and scaring all the animals. But his most enduring legacy is the macabre-tinged showmanship of Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper and most recently Marilyn Manson, who covered "Spell" in his 1995 shock-rocking "Smells Like Children" album. The key difference is that Manson likes to pretend he's dead serious--and a genuine menace to civilization--whereas Hawkins never tried to hide the giggles behind his voodoo mask.

Not that Hawkins didn't alarm a few onlookers. For a while he liked to perform with a bone through his nose, white paint on his face, a loincloth around his waist, a spear and shield in his hands, and his hair brushed straight up. That infuriated groups like the NAACP, which worried that his act would reflect badly on African Americans. It all seems perfectly tepid compared with today's rap stars, but some black magazines and newspapers were appalled enough to ignore Hawkins.

That's only one reason that he lived through so many lean years during his five-decade career. Born Jalacy Hawkins in Cleveland--he long maintained that he was conceived in Washington--he spent much of his childhood in orphanages. He was a semi-noteworthy middleweight boxer, but he soon traded the boxing gloves for tenor sax and piano. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1944 and entertained troops in the United States, England and Japan.

When he left the armed services, he plunged into the then-thriving R&B circuit, serving briefly in Fats Domino's band. (Hawkins's leopard skin suit upstaged the boss and he was fired.) A few years later, a particularly humiliating kiss-off by a fed-up girlfriend--she waved goodbye right while he was playing with his band--inspired Hawkins to a little bit of creative revenge.

"The next day I was sitting at the piano," he told The Washington Post in 1990, "wondering why she left me--I didn't want to admit I was wrong--and I was tapping on the piano and I said, 'This is so stupid, to walk away and leave me like that without giving me a chance to explain. . . . She didn't know she's was messing with a witch doctor. . . . I'll put a spell on her.' "

Hawkins's original version of the song went nowhere, but an enterprising producer later rerecorded it, this time plying Hawkins and his band with liquor in a raucous all-nighter. Hawkins got so drunk that 10 days later he was startled when a messenger showed up with the single in hand. He had no memory of the session.

The song is a minor masterpiece of pent-up tension, with little more than an echoey piano and drums pounding in marching time toward a emotional peak, as Hawkins yelps and threatens his ex-lover with a hex. The performance is so unhinged that it even intimidated Hawkins, who said that for 30 years he would sing the song live only after he hit the bottle.

The tune caught the ear of Nina Simone as well as Creedence Clearwater Revival, just two of the acts that eventually recorded it. "Spell" loomed so large in Hawkins's life that he was considered a one-song novelty act for years, though he recorded plenty of other memorable numbers, including "Alligator Wine" and "Little Demon."

But Hawkins was a natural and incorrigible ham and never obsessed much about being taken seriously. Later in his life, there were brief resuscitations courtesy of admirers--including the Rolling Stones, who asked Hawkins to open for the band at Madison Square Garden in 1980. He also turned up in a pair of films by Jim Jarmusch, "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Mystery Train." In the '90s, Hawkins signed up with Demon Records and his "Heart Attack and Vine" was featured in a Levi's commercial.

"Scream, baby, scream!" urged a drunken fan in a West Virginia bar in 1950, handing Hawkins the name he would carry for half a century and a piece of advice that he never forgot.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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